At any Sunday afternoon Mass in our Project 4 church, we see the very old and babies, poor people and scavengers (dressed up for Sunday Mass), lawyers, and young girls heartbreakingly unaware of all that await them—love, marriage, childbirth and motherhood, and maybe serious disappointment. There are grandmothers and a little girl in the pew ahead who spends her Mass staring back at me. There is an old man who, I think, stays for two or more Masses. There are nurses in white uniforms, beggars at the door (as there have been at church doors for over a thousand years), and young men who may be police officers. A young mother with two small children seems unaccountably sad.
It is a deep honor to be there with them every Sunday. One of the graces God gives old people, I believe, is the ability to take pride in all the people around them, as if they were their own, all of them from the babies to the nurses, young men, the choir members, the boys and girls serving at the altar, and the old folks. The old take pride in them all.
We sit there waiting for the Mass to begin, these very varied people, ready to ponder God’s word, laugh at a good story, change for the better, or at least try to change and to help one another if we can. These are God’s people, I thought; these few hundred people gathered here in Project 4, Cubao, are part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church we profess in the Creed, just as much as the 2,000 plus bishops who gathered at Vatican II. The Holy Spirit is here. Jesus is in their midst as He promised.
We cannot separate these people and all the other members of the Church, known and unknown, from the priests and bishops, but I took away from that afternoon Mass a realization that we must do more in the Church to appreciate the dignity of the lay people and to make sure they develop in the Church as God wishes.
Perhaps we can gather from our community-organizing work some hints about how the Church may go about enhancing the life of the people of God. Often it is a matter of allowing people to be themselves. It is the one profession I know well.
In community organization we help poor people come together to learn how to analyze their problems—that is, the problems they face every day; we help them work out their own solutions, taking into account their allies and abilities and the strengths of the people opposing them. Lastly, we help them act in a democratic, nonviolent, community-wide way. I am not suggesting that the Church imitate this process as such, but rather, that it look at some of the unexpected, yet welcome, outcomes of this process.
At a certain point the poor people no longer need the community organizers (COs) on any regular basis. They initiate works on their own, imaginative works that the COs wouldn’t think of. Creativity spreads in a community; initiatives widen. People make better arrangements for savings, toilets, urban gardens, contracts with foundations, and buyers of their cottage-industry products, estate management, repayment schedules, and community discipline than the COs can.
Does the Church allow for or encourage such creativity among the laity? What, for example, does it learn from such people’s devotions such as the Black Nazarene? Nine million people gather, barefoot. What does that say to Church leaders? How can they help unlock the tremendous amounts of goodwill in that great movement of people for building a just and prosperous country?
Community organization sees in its more successful efforts the people coming together in true solidarity with one another: They form communities where they help one another and take care of the sick and very poor. They make sure all children go to school. These communities are truly religious, often of mixed Christian and Muslim people.
Does the Church actively build such communal solidarity? It has done so in the past—for instance, in the Solidarity Movement in Poland at the start of John Paul II’s papacy. The Basic Ecclesial Movement (BEC), sometimes called the Basic Christian Community (BCC), unites Catholics in prayer and social action in their areas, but the movement has never flourished here. The latest figures I received from the National Secretariat for Social Action a few years ago were about 7,000 BECs or BCCs, with about 70,000 members, in a country of 80 million Catholics. Some say the movement didn’t expand because it was too controlled by priests. In Latin America, it was more a people’s movement.
Our COs are sometimes disappointed when they are not publicly recognized in the media, or in the people’s narratives. We tell them they should be happy that the people believe they did the good work themselves. Humility becomes people who work with the poor. Let the people claim the success: The poor will never forget them; the poor, in their private moments, know deep down who helped them.
Perhaps the Church needs to learn the same lesson of humility. It requires big doses of common sense. Many women, for example, react critically when they see rows of priests and bishops investments moving up the middle aisle, and not a woman among them. We should find some other way to create solemnity.
We are called in the Philippines to be the Church of the Poor. We are sent like Jesus to preach good news to the poor, heal the sick, give sight to the blind, bind wounds, feed the hungry, and let the oppressed go free. There’s no room here for pride of any sort.
Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation letter is a model of such humility.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [firstname.lastname@example.org].